Fung's Kitchen Canton Seafood on Richmond, Ocean Palace in the Hong Kong City Mall and Peking Cuisine just down the Southwest Freeway from Fung's Kitchen are all rapidly gaining on the grandfather of Houston Cantonese restaurants. But Fung's remains at the top of the heap, primarily for its 400-item menu and because it's still the best place for exotic dishes such as whole ling cod and fresh scallops and oysters. They don't shuck the shellfish or kill the fish until you order them here -- and it doesn't get any fresher than that. The seaweed salad, crispy eggplant, stuffed tofu, Peking pork and snow pea shoots with tofu are all brilliantly executed. Although the service isn't what it used to be and the prices are considerably higher than at the dozens of Chinese restaurants, noodle shops and dumpling houses a few miles down Bellaire Boulevard, the palatial red-and-gold dining room and elegant ambience still make Fung's Kitchen a special treat.

When you sit outside at El Pueblito Place, you'll start believing you're on vacation in a foreign land -- especially after a couple of margaritas. Palm trees with Christmas lights, tiki torches and candles give the expansive patio a romantic feel, and there's always live music, usually Latin. If you're with your harem, you can sit in one of the raised platforms draped with white cloth and made cozy with couches and pillows. It's a nice respite when it seems that the whole world is flocking to El Pueblito's patio. Even on stiflingly hot nights, the place is packed.

A vertical arrangement of tropical fruit in a basket on the gleaming white bar looks like Carmen Miranda's hat. The bartender borrows from the overflow of pineapples, bananas and assorted tropical fruits to make smoothies. Meanwhile, the barista cranks out tiny cups of Cuban coffee. Cuban food lovers from all over town are showing up at The Little Havana to welcome back former Cafe Miami owner Gladys Abelenda. The popular new Cuban hangout is simultaneously a boisterous family restaurant and a rendezvous for well-dressed adults. Many in the predominantly Latin American crowd know each other, and there's a lot of table-hopping and cheek-kissing going on. Smoothies, fried plantains and ropa vieja, a long-stewed beef dish served with rice and black beans, are all recommended. So are the Cuban coffee and luscious desserts, including a definitive version of tres leches cake.

Frozen dough, machine sheeters and conveyor belt ovens long ago took over the pizza business. Thanks to the miracle of technology, Houston pizzerias can now turn out crappy pizzas in under five minutes! But compared to most pizzerias in Houston, Pizza Bella is making perfect pies. They use a stainless-steel Blodget brand pizza oven with a brick floor -- one of the best of its class. They hand-throw their own homemade dough and they don't dock it, or run it through a sheeter. But you still have to avoid the overloaded pizzas on the menu if you want to get a crispy crust. Try the margherita; it's nothing but Roma tomatoes sliced thin lengthwise, a smattering of fresh basil leaves and a little garlic over olive oil. A simple fresh-out-of-the-oven flatbread with just enough garlic-infused olive oil and a few scant but aromatic toppings -- this is what pizza is all about.
Laredo Taqueria The interior of this popular taco joint at the corner of Fulton and Patton is cheerfully decorated with ceramic roosters and Mexican crockery, and it's always spotlessly clean. Sit down for table service, or stand in line for tacos to go. While you go down the cafeteria line, you can watch two women roll out and toast the fresh flour tortillas you're about to eat. The steam table is small, but everything on it is wonderfully fresh. In the morning, there are no fewer than six varieties of scrambled eggs ready to be put on a breakfast taco. There are eggs with chorizo, potatoes, ham, nopalitos, onions and chiles, plus sausage, refried beans and chicharrones. Barbacoa is always available. Lunch and dinner specials change daily and include fajitas, country chicken and caldo de res. There's also a choice of incredibly inexpensive enchilada plates, and every taco is 99 cents, all day long.

Real Cajun cooking comes from Cajun country. The southern populace of Louisiana refers to the north, including New Orleans, as Yankees. Don't call this food Creole. Cajun and Creole are two different enigmas, sir, and we're willing to come to blows over it. Creole has a tomato base. Cajun has a roux base. A roux is made from cooking oil or butter and flour together until the liquid mixture turns a beautiful chicory color. And talk about good! Willie G's uses recipes from the beautiful bayous of south Louisiana. That's the real deal, captain. The food is phenomenal. And the service, ça c'est bon. Sit at the bar and, if you're lucky, bartender Marvin will look after you. The crawfish platter is a miracle in your mouth when mudbugs are in season. The avocado and super lump crab cocktail makes a mother of a first course; filled with tender avocado and juicy she-crab (female crabs yield tastier, more plentiful meat), it's almost a meal on its own. Then the main course: Crab au gratin, steamed Alaskan crab legs, fried soft-shell…When it finally ended, we wanted to waltz into the kitchen and hug everyone in sight.

The General Tso's chicken comes to the table in a heaping portion. There's enough for five people -- five big people. If you order it by yourself, the leftovers will last a week. The chicken seems to be a favorite here, as it's almost always on every table. But it's not the only thing that's super-sized: The dumplings are the size of your hand, and the noodle dishes are thick and hearty. If you're feeling cash-poor but aren't in the mood to run to the border, this is the place to eat.

This Is It Soul Food At This Is It, you're likely to see old-time Third Ward residents rubbing elbows with the yuppies from the new apartments across the street, along with a few politicos and downtown suits on the picnic tables. The sheer number of folks here tells you that this is it: the best place in town for real down-home cooking. You'll drool over the fried chicken and buttery collard greens, surrounded by the savory-smelling steam rising from the cafeteria-style counter. And the oxtails and perfectly moist corn bread are the best this side of the Mississippi -- not greasy, just good. This Is It has become a fun and funky lunch spot for the "in" crowd, but it's also a great place to pick up a full Southern-style meal on the way home. Nothin' fancy here, just real soul food at good prices.

Café Montrose Family-owned and -operated, this little hole-in-the-wall next door to a launderette is one of those strip-center diamonds in the rough. Short on looks but long on authentic Belgian food, Café Montrose prides itself on to-die-for pommes frites, steak au poivre and desserts dripping with Belgian chocolate. But the real reason to hit this hideaway is the mussels entrée. This huge bowl of white wine-steamed mussels goes best with a fruity Belgian beer (Café Montrose has one of the largest selections in Houston) and a thick hunk of steamy bread with butter. Not pretentious, not showy -- just delightful Belgian flavors in a relaxed atmosphere.

Unlike so many outstanding Asian restaurants, which are dotted across the Bellaire archipelago, this one has been hiding right inside the Loop. It's an upscale Hong Kong-style seafood restaurant where large groups of Asians sit at big round tables with lazy Susans in the middle. There are so many fascinating-looking dishes spinning around, you may be tempted to ask if you can just pull up a chair and sit down. The lobster and crab in ginger-scallion sauce are both a safe bet. Whole fish are also available, either steamed or fried. Salt-baked scallops, served with the bizarre dipping combination of Worcestershire sauce and ground salted plum powder are stunning. Don't miss the stir-fried romaine lettuce in spicy brown sauce.

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